Strong opinions, weakly held

Fire the TSA?

I’ve been reading Bruce Schneier for more than a decade now, so very little of Joel Johnson’s piece, President Obama, It’s Time To Fire the TSA, is news to me. The more interesting question to me is, is there any reasonable path to changing how we think about security? Schneier hammers the TSA repeatedly for protecting against tactics that have been used previously rather than trying to think more systematically about the shape of future threats, but given human nature, it’s not surprising that we handle things that way.

The canonical example of security theater is the requirement that everyone remove their shoes before passing through security. We all know why that rule exists — Richard Reid tried to blow up an airplane with a bomb in his shoe on December 22, 2001 (yes, we’ve been removing our shoes at the airport for 8 years). There’s nothing special about secreting a small bomb in your shoe. As we learned this week, you can stuff a bomb into your underwear just as easily. But imagine the political casualties if someone were to blow up an airplane with a shoe bomb now. The opposition and the media would crucify everyone they could get their hands on for not protecting against a tactic we know that the terrorists use.

In fact, if a politician even tried to stop the shoe removal process, they would be attacked for not taking terrorism seriously. Many of us wish for more political courage from our politicians, but the incentives of every political system serve to diminish political courage and to cull out the truly courageous as quickly as possible. So I’m all for firing the TSA and restoring sanity to airport security, but I’m not optimistic that it’ll happen.

1 Comment

  1. I was talking about this on this thread at ObWi. Actually I was defending the TSA – I think Schneier is right about the major security innovations since 9/11 being cabin doors and passengers who will fight, but I think that short-term measures that specifically interfere with identical attacks are worthwhile.

    But later on what I said was this: we get the TSA we deserve. It’s not just the media, it’s the people. We rate spectacular airline attacks as vastly more important than the direct casualty count or economic loss would indicate. Last time we had a major attack we invaded two foreign countries, spent a couple of trillion dollars, and got several thousand American soldiers killed. I may be willing to fly with way less security than we have, but a lot of people are not, and frankly if they’re going to react to spectacular attacks they way they actually do, I want the TSA to take every possible step they can to prevent attacks. I don’t care that much about flying and I can deal with the hassle when I need to. Flying sucks no matter what anyway.

    I think some criticisms of the TSA procedures are fair, but I think Schneier et al don’t seem to understand that it’s not about a strict cost-benefit analysis. Terrorism has consequences far beyond the people directly affected by it. And I also think it’s a lot easier to criticize security measures when it’s not your head on the line.

    I also think that Schneier is inconsistent on this. He praises security based on breaking routines and observation, but a lot of the TSA measures are aimed at exactly that. And while he’s right to point out that getting explosives onto a plane is always going to be possible, the TSA screening procedures make it a lot harder, which gives more opportunities for things to go wrong or for other people to notice what’s happening. And the costs of these measures, well, an extra hour on every trip sure sucks, but it’s not like that hour is usually coming from work time. Most people are taking the day for travel, not coming directly to or from work.

    You can never 100% prevent attacks but you might be able to 50% prevent them, and it is quite apparent to me that people value that kind of reduction enough to deal with massive hassles – certainly, as you say, a politician who proposed removing those measures would be hammered on it.

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